The Home Stretch: Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater

(the 11th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

ANNE BANCROFT IN THE PUMPKIN EATER (1964)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5):

Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

Sophia Loren in Marriage, Italian Style

Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Category confusion seems rife in the 1964 Best Actress race; in some parallel universe of original casting choices, we could have found a category in which Julie Andrews’ screen screen debut came reprising her stage role in My Fair Lady and not originating the role of Mary Poppins, Deborah Kerr garnering a seventh nomination for Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and Patricia Neal following up her win for Hud with a nomination for The Pumpkin Eater.  However, we live in a much more jumbled world, and the last of these three roles fell to Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater.  Anne somehow channels Patricia’s careworn spirit in this film, doing her best as a British housewife beset by a murky malaise.  I think I see traces of a quality performance from Anne, but unfortunately the film mires her for two hours in an impressionistic labyrinth, splaying her character out into countless facets that I can’t piece back together again.

The film’s title comes from a snippet of the nursery rhyme “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” a poem that I learned has some creepy undertones referring to sexuality.  Sex in all of its manifestations seems to hang over this film in some way.  Her character seems only to savor life when surrounded by her indeterminately large litter of children from three marriages: that part I get.  The rest of the film concerns her malaise, which seems to arise from a rather overdetermined combination of empty nest syndrome, despair at her husband’s infidelity, anxiety over sex, obsession with pregnancy, and fear that everyone around her is even crazier than she.  These haphazard pieces are all reflected in vignettes, separated by dissolves that obliterate a sense of past, present, and future.  Most disturbing is a visit to the hairdresser, where an encounter with a disturbed woman in the next chair, who oscillates between simpering adoration of Anne’s beauty and vicious personal insults, bewilders the fragile Anne and propels her onto the couch of a psychiatrist who inserts a number of ideas strange ideas about sex and plants the notion of sterilization in her mind.  I’ll leave off from the plot description here, but though the film ends on a hopeful note for the character, her journey is quite surreal.

I must give British dramas of this period credit for overtly addressing women’s reproductive rights (and the Academy for responding to them); Anne’s nomination is flanked by Leslie Caron’s The L-Shaped Room in 1963 and Julie Christie’s win for Darling, both of which also tackle the issue of their characters’ birth control quite clearly.  Unfortunately, Jack Clayton’s filmmaking dilutes Anne’s attempt at a character too much, and can’t hold up to the Academy’s choice of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins or my own candidate, Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon for turning in a true high point of this quest.  A thwarted opportunity for a great actress.

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